State looks to power companies for rural broadband

The small town of Moses Lake, Wash., surrounded by hundreds of miles of farmland, an unlikely center for high-speed Net business, has the beginnings of a modern fiber-optic network.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
The small town of Moses Lake, Wash., surrounded by hundreds of miles of farmland, is an unlikely center for the high-speed Net business.

But that may be changing. The town has the beginnings of a modern fiber-optic network, laid by the local public electric company for its own communications needs. Now the power company wants to connect those high-speed data pipes to homes and businesses in order to turbocharge the town's Net connections.

Under a new package of laws signed by Washington State Governor Gary Locke, it will now get the chance. The state is aiming to jump-start rural broadband telecommunications by encouraging all the local public power companies to sell wholesale Internet access through their fiber-optic systems.

The move offers further evidence that high-speed Net connections are quickly becoming a "must have" technology for communities across the country.

see story: Cashing in on fiber optics "Many businesses will not even consider investing in a community that does not have high-power, fiber-optics cable, digital switching and other infrastructure necessary for online communications," Locke said upon signing the laws late last week. "These bills are the linchpin to opening the door to that kind of investment."

With the passage of its new laws, Washington is on the leading edge of a growing government effort to close a growing "digital divide," and bring the most modern Internet communications to rural areas and poor urban neighborhoods.

Policy-makers are worried that telephone and cable TV companies aren't investing enough to bring high-speed Net access to outlying areas. For the most part, the telephone companies say they're trying, but that they have to be able to make some money from the services. Many remote areas can't provide the kind of return they're looking for.

That's driving some of these local areas to get creative. Already a handful of cities, counties and other regional governments have started building their own publicly owned fiber networks, stepping in where the big telecommunications companies can't or won't go. see related story: Companies fight over wireless users

But elsewhere in the country, the electric companies are the wild card. Private and public power companies have been laying fiber-optic lines inside their own networks for years, with the aim of communicating between substations, and creating a more efficient way to read customers' power meters.

Slowly, those companies are beginning to realize that the fiber optic also puts them in the catbird's seat for digital communications. Some of the large private companies, such as Enron, Reliant Energy and Southern California Edison are already offering data services over their communications lines, and others are beginning to follow suit.

See special report:
Main Street goes high tech In Washington and elsewhere, policy-makers and some ambitious power company executives are looking at this development as a way to bridge the gap between rural and urban communications relatively quickly.

"It's like in the 1930's, and how we got electricity out to this kind of rural area," said Gary Garmant, public information officer for the Grant County Public Utility District, which includes Washington's Moses Lake. "This time around it's telecommunications."

The Grant County system has laid about 128 miles of fiber optic already, and plans to double that this year as it begins adding access to homes and businesses to its backbone facility. That's a relatively small step--the agency services a 2,777 square mile area, with 70,000 people--but it will serve most of the largest local communities. The more remote farm houses and rural dwellings will come later, Garmant said.

Under the new state law, Grant County and the other public utilities will be able to sell only wholesale access, and must allow competition between different companies for their services. This should ensure that even remote areas will have companies competing to offer broadband Net services to local homes and businesses, and that the public sector won't shut private companies out of the market, the governor's office says.

"The governor's concern was that telecommunications has traditionally been provided by the private sector," said Locke executive policy advisor Dave Danner. "We thought this was a significant change, and that we should go slowly here."

The measure was initially opposed by some of the big local telephone companies in the state, including GTE. But since the public companies didn't win the ability to offer service directly to consumers and businesses, they now expect to partner with their erstwhile political opponents to help build and sell their networks.

"I'm sure we'll be working with the telephone companies down the road," Garmant said.